A single Instagram post seen by 57 people can be enough to destroy your business and your life. Just ask Sara Christensen. A couple of years ago, she owned a successful company that brought business leaders together into mastermind groups. Then, in October 2019, an internet mob took it all away, and more. Today, Christensen, who still lives more or less in hiding, has some advice for small-business owners and solopreneurs in case the same thing happens to them. And make no mistake: What happened to her could happen to anyone.
It all began when a woman named Emily Clow applied for a job at Christensen's six-person company. Christensen was planning to hire a marketing manager who would handle the company's social media, so she asked applicants for links to their social-media accounts. "I wanted to see how they were representing themselves online because they were going to be representing my brand," she says. Clow had posted a picture of herself to Instagram standing in a swimming pool, wearing a revealing bikini.
Without thinking too much about it, Christensen reposted the picture to her own Instagram account. She cropped out Clow's head to conceal her identity, and added text that began, "PSA (because I know some of you applicants are looking at this) do not share your social media with a potential employer if this is the kind of content on it. I am looking for a professional marketer--not a bikini model."
Christensen says she meant no harm. "I had employed hundreds of people just out of college and mentored them," she explains. "My intent was to communicate to new employees that employers do look at your social media. But obviously that was not how it landed in the world."
Was this a bad idea? You bet. Should she have asked herself how Clow would react when she saw it? Probably. Even so, what happened next was completely out of proportion to Christensen's misdeed. It was also terrifying.
Clow emailed to ask if Christensen would take down the post, which she immediately did. Only 57 people had seen it, she says. But in the meantime, Clow reposted the image to her own Twitter feed, complaining, "i was objectified earlier today by a company because of a picture of me in a bikini." That tweet gathered a little attention, Christensen says. Then @SheRatesDogs, which has over 500,000 followers, retweeted it, and Clow's complaint went viral. "Some blogs picked it up, and then it went bigger," Christensen says. "Then the mainstream media picked it up, and then it was this out-of-control inferno."
Over the next couple of days, the internet mob attacked Christensen every way it could. "Every asset I had for my business was destroyed," she says. "My podcast had thousands of bad reviews. Anything I had online was just inundated. My clients were also attacked and told in no uncertain terms that they needed to not do business with me anymore." The mob also flooded Facebook and other social media with complaints that Christensen had violated their terms of service, which resulted in all her accounts being shut down. Death threats poured in, not just to Christensen, but also to her clients. Unsurprisingly, they all left her.
Then she was "doxed"--her home address and other personal information was published online. She began receiving death threats at home. "I had an eight-page, handwritten letter sent to my house telling in great detail how they're going to kill me and my family and cut my dogs' heads off," she recalls.
Badly rattled, Christensen called in law enforcement. "The FBI said that in these circumstances, most of the credible threats are from people who are highly practiced and can make themselves anonymous. So the FBI generally can't find them before something happens."
Fearing for their lives, Christensen and her family sold their house. "We lived all sorts of random places for more than six months, trying to run away from the doxing and the death threats," she says. Now, more than a year later, they have a home again, but very few people know where. "I kind of live underground. I don't tell my neighbors what my name is. I have to fiercely protect our physical safety because it's still an issue."
Christensen says she's still "radioactive" and couldn't get a job at Starbucks. But, after a year of trauma, she's gone public, at least professionally, as a speaker and consultant sharing what she's learned, warning business owners that the same thing could happen to them, and teaching them how to protect themselves. Here's her advice.
1. Don't assume it can't happen to you, even if your social media is completely inoffensive.
You may think posting only bland, product-related items to social media will protect you from the troll army. Not necessarily, as some of the case studies Christensen points to on her website show. A taco truck company was attacked for agreeing to park and sell tacos outside an immigration detention center in Buffalo, New York. A deli in Minneapolis was attacked and lost its lease because of racist statements the owner's daughter made online eight years earlier. You can be very, very careful, but it's impossible to know what will set off an internet attack, or when.
2. Have a plan.
"Businesses need to have a plan for this, because when you're in it and you have no plan, you cannot respond in a thoughtful way, especially if the lives of you and your family are being threatened," Christensen says.
Your plan should include lining up PR and legal services with experience in this area because of the complexities involved. "You need reputation management and physical security," she says. You also should have someone who can coordinate all these efforts in a crisis. Christensen says that when she was being attacked, with her life under threat and hackers trying to access her bank account, she wasn't able to do things like reach out to the hundreds of media outlets that she says published inaccurate stories about her. "Digital social hazards are new, so I think a lot of businesses haven't caught up to them yet," she says. "But they can be as disruptive as a tsunami or an earthquake or having a product deemed unsafe."
3. Keep your home address and personal info private.
"I can't believe how many people I see posting on social media, saying, 'We're at our kids' school.' They're giving the name and location of the school. If someone is launching death threats at you, you do not want that information out there," she says.
Because credit companies routinely sell information, she recommends against using your home address for taking out any kind of loan, or pretty much anything else. "When you go to the dentist, they do not need to know your home address," she says. If your home title is in your name, or your home address is on your driver's license, that information is easy for attackers to find, she says. "But it can be scrubbed, 100 percent."
4. Rethink your dependence on social media.
If an online mob decides to attack you, social-media companies may not be much help. "I was getting thousands and thousands of DMs on Instagram," Christensen says. "There was no way to reach out to Instagram and say, 'I'm being attacked. Can you help me?' I had to report every single one of those individually. That was the last thing I had time and energy for."
That was bad enough, but getting attacked on Facebook was worse, because that's where Christensen had been conducting part of her business. "Be really careful about using social media as an information repository," she says. "Some of our Facebook groups had documents or resources stored in them. That all goes away if Facebook decides to shut down your account because some people say you're violating their terms of service."
5. Decide what your public positions will be.
Should your company comment on political issues? Should it try to avoid the fray? These are difficult questions in today's polarized world, and the right answers will be different for every company. Whatever it is for you, Christensen advises, think it through in advance and consider your communications carefully. "You probably don't want to hire a virtual assistant halfway across the world, with English as a second language, to be doing your social-media posts."
Instead, she says, put some thought into what your communication process will be, especially if you come under attack. "And figure out, as an organization, what you want to be standing for, and what you don't want to be standing for."